Dear reader, okay. I'm going to do this thing. After a long resistance based on principle and apathy, I'm finally going to share a few ideas I hold dear in terms of raising children.
In case you're one of the 10% who didn't ask for this information, please accept my apologies in advance. But over the years I've received about seven requests for this topic and I'm pretty sure that makes up the vast majority of my readership.
But I'm doing so with a certain degree of misgiving. Because I already know, without even having started, that I'm going to come off sounding like some smug jerk who's all: raising children is so EASY! All you have to do is be amazing, like this blog makes you think I am!
Let's not do that to each other, okay?
For all I know, my girls are destined to become bank robbers.
And by the way, if they do become bank robbers, don't expect me to take the blame for it. No siree. Don't expect me to hold a press conference, mascara-stained tears running down my cheeks, wringing my hands and asking the populace at large where I went wrong.
Because I have a sneaking suspicion parents rarely deserve the credit for their children's accomplishments nor the blame for their bank robberies.
Indeed, sometimes a crappy parental example is just the thing to motivate Junior to hitch his wagon to the stars.
Then again, sometimes a crappy parental example yields a bank robber.
It's a bit of a coin toss, come to think of it.
So if you don't live in Las Vegas and aren't comfortable with those odds, here are a few things I've done with my girls which have made our lives rather pleasant and which are also, by coincidence, pretty much free (and totally unoriginal, too, by the way):
1. Books and bedtime stories. If you want to offer your child worlds without number, open the pages of a book. Borrow books. Share books. Go to the library often. Ask for them as gifts. Make up your own.
Best of all, read to your child, before and long after she learns to read for herself. Let her curl up against you when you have a free moment and read away. Let your voice linger over the beauty of language, of rhythm, sound, and meaning. You don't have to be Dame Judi Dench or anything, but for crying out loud, don't phone it in. Make an effort. Don't speed read, skip pages, or paraphrase the story because guess what? They did a study of the world's most nefarious bank robbers and a startling commonality amongst them was having mothers who rushed storytime!
Read at bedtime. Let your voice be the last thing your child hears as she drifts off to sleep. If you manage to accomplish that just once during the month should you feel like a failure? No. You should high five yourself in the mirror and try for two times next month.
Here is a poem I often recite to the girls at bedtime. It's a bit creepy, in hindsight, but my mum used to tell it to me as a little girl and it soothed and helped me to fall asleep. I tell it to my girls and so far they haven't become opium addicts.
Anyway...my point being: recitation is something of a lost art. I think it's a lovely tradition to add to the ritual of bedtime.
Here's how you do it: copy out a poem and read it to your kids every night for a zillion nights until one night you realize you have it memorized.
2. Music and singing. We all know the obvious advice of getting a jump start on your child's inner prodigy by enrolling her in music lessons at the tender age of three. What? Your child's four already and she isn't banging out The Well Tempered Clavier? Too late, now she'll never be a genius.
If you really want me to talk about music lessons, I will, but I think that's a separate post and possibly a separate tea party wherein hopefully someone spikes the tea.
What I want to say here is that music is for everyone. Your child doesn't need lessons to obtain a rich musical background. She needs to listen to music. Do you have a radio? Do you have some device which plays music? Then play it. Play all kinds of music. But in my opinion, go heavy on the Bach.
Here's something else: your child already has a musical instrument, in fact, my favorite one of all time: a voice.
Can you sing? No? Good. You should join my church choir.
Haha. I hope no one from my choir reads this.
Actually, I was being genuine...my point being, just SING. Sing whether you think you can or not. Sing because it will give your child a sense of well being. Sing because it will teach her to sing. I recently heard someone say a child who sings is a happy child.
One rule we imposed when the girls were younger was that no one was allowed to tell anyone else to stop singing. Like, if one sister was purposely trying to annoy the others by tapping her foot or clicking a pen, they could ask her to be quiet. But if she was singing (and at times these motives were highly suspect), they couldn't ask her to stop. Singing was like an endangered species in our house: not always the fittest, but highly protected nevertheless.
Sing, whistle, hum, listen, dance. Let good music be a constant presence in your lives.
3. A pencil and paper. Give your child paper. Yes, it would be amazing if you could also provide pencil crayons, felt pens, glue sticks, pipe cleaners, glitter, oil paints, clay, blocks of marble, and the ceiling of an Italian chapel, but failing THAT, give her paper.
Make paper available over the years. Sit there and create with her. Fold a fan. Fold a swan. Draw something. Design paper dolls and cut them out. Make tiny, miniature worlds out of paper.
Two other projects I've loved doing with my girls are stitching and making playdough. These are also simple and inexpensive...but nothing trumps paper.
Go easy on flashy toys. Go easy on television. Nothing like a little good, old fashioned deprivation to make the simpler things in life regain their appeal.
4. Go outside. As often as possible, take your children outside. Go on walks together. Point out signs of the season. Let your imagination run wild and free.
Exclaim over the sunrise and sunset. Point out clouds in the sky.
This one is a pod of narwhals chasing a stingray. Easy.
Ask them, during car trips, to look out the window and describe what they see. Do the same yourself. Cultivate in your children an awe and reverence for this beautiful, amazing world by showing them how deeply you feel it, as well.
5. Belief. I don't really know how to go about delineating this topic, as it can be a sensitive one and I have no desire to alienate or offend.
I think it's good for your child to feel you have a sense of how this world works, to feel that as she is working out her own understanding of the universe, you've already got a few things figured out yourself. It's reassuring, when she inevitably wonders about the grander questions of life and death, if you don't shrug your shoulders or look like a deer in the headlights.
Of course, if you do look like a deer in the headlights, don't panic, darling. Just keep trying to figure things out...the honesty of that process is also reassuring to a child. The search for understanding takes us in many directions...I think you can tell when you're heading in a good one.
I'm a Mormon and have felt the example of Jesus Christ fill me with endless wonder. A favorite teaching in particular, something I strive for personally and with my girls on a daily basis, is to follow his way of looking at the world with love and compassion, of looking beyond appearances into the heart of an individual and seeing her infinite beauty and worth.
6. Love and acceptance. I don't want to go on at length on this topic because hopefully love weaves itself through everything, through the topics I've already discussed and through other details which go into family life.
What a concept. Love and acceptance are close, but not necessarily one and the same. It isn't enough to love children, it's equally important to endow them with the security which comes from feeling accepted. I think that means we should be more patient with our children, to enjoy them more as they are, to be more gentle, in a better mood, to relax more in moments which would otherwise make us tense, to convey a steady affection for our children they can trust will not falter regardless of how they look or what they do.
That's not to say abandon important standards, but love with greater warmth, powerfully, unconditionally, in a way which tells our children: you matter more to me than any triumph or mistake, any broken dish, any messy room, any ruined outfit, any excess of mascara, any failing grade, any life decision.
There's more to discuss, of course. This was by no means a comprehensive list. I could go on at length about how I love being a mom and how raising these girls is the great creative effort of my life. I could go on at length about my husband and how amazing he is as their father.
I could also go on at length about my regrettable moments and the times I've felt like a horrid mom and wished someone would let me off this ride.
I get a bit nervous when I hear motherhood painted with high and lofty brushes; similarly, I feel disheartened when I hear it depicted in low and dismissive tones. I don't pretend to have it figured out but it is something I think about constantly...how to help my girls be happy, how to help them develop humility, resilience, accountability, and confidence, to look upon this world with love and appreciation, and an abiding sense of possibility.
p.s. the design on the chalkboard was inspired by the lovely art of Shanna Murray.